Earlier on, I discussed the interesting history of both the former British colony of Mauritius and the French overseas dominion of Reunion in the Indian Ocean and shed light on the cases of “high degree of autonomy” to which they are entitled.
Apart from Britain, the United States and France, two other former colonial superpowers – Spain and Portugal – also have overseas territories scattered across the globe.
Among them is the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory about 100 kilometers off the North African coast.
Conquered by the Kingdom of Castile in the late 15th century, the archipelago was granted a substantial degree of autonomy by Madrid through bilateral treaties, under which it was allowed to have its own military and currency.
However, in 1873, when Spain saw the establishment of its first republic, Madrid unilaterally nullified its treaty with the Canary Islands and tried to assimilate it into the rest of the country.
It wasn’t until the founding of the left-wing second republic in Spain in the 1930s that the degree of autonomy was once again restored in the Canary Islands.
Nevertheless, after General Francisco Franco toppled the second republic in 1939, he tightened his grip on the Canary Islands. But after his death in 1975, the archipelago once more regained its status as one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain in 1978, which it holds up to the present day.
Since 1993 the Canary lslands has been ruled by nativist political parties. There remains little incentive for its people to seek total independence from the rest of Spain.
Strategically speaking, Madrid has every reason to hold on to the Canary Islands because of its unique geopolitical value. Back in the “Age of Discovery”, the Canary Islands was already an important transit point for Spanish explorers, missionaries and merchants who were headed for the American continent.
As far as Spain is concerned, the Canary Islands still serves as a buffer between Europe and North Africa, which has been regarded by Madrid as a potential source of major military threat.
The archipelago serves as an important strategic outpost for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to enhance its military defense in the southern Mediterranean and along the North African coast. As such, it can also help maintain Spain’s influence in the alliance and undermine Britain’s bargaining power over the Gibraltar issue.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 29
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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